89-year-old celebrates birthday by going skydiving

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 30, 2012

SALISBURY — Why do you harness yourself to a stranger, jump out of a plane 2 miles up in the air, freefall at 120 mph for about 40 seconds, then float to the ground those last 5,000 feet?
And why do you wait until you’re 89 to do this?
Braxton Young has the answers. He celebrated his 89th birthday Saturday by tandem skydiving — the one and only thing on his bucket list.
James Laningham, owner of Piedmont Skydiving and the man Young was attached to in the tandem dive, says Young covered the two main reasons people pay $210 for his company’s services — bucket lists and birthdays.
“I think he had a good time,” Laningham says.
Young confirms the skydive was all he hoped it would be.
“It was a great time,” says Young, who lives in Anchor Downs on the waters of High Rock Lake. “They were very professional.”
He was the oldest person for whom Piedmont Skydiving has ever provided a tandem dive.
The jump even had some patriotic overtones for the Memorial Day weekend.
Young is a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a veteran of both World War II and Korea. When the time came for their jump, Laningham and Young were joined by Frank Harris, who took still photographs and high-definition video, and Kelvin Wilkerson, who carried an American flag.
“They pulled me aside and said, ‘Would you mind? We would like to make a video of this thing,’” Young recalls. “I said, ‘I’d be delighted. I have a lot of confidence in you.’ ”
As Young was freefalling the first 4,500 feet or so and strapped under Laningham, Harris was there flying with them.
“He was right in my face,” Young says. “He would shout, and I could hear it.”
Harris triggered the camera with a switch in his mouth.
Laningham says Piedmont Skydiving’s Cessna 182 climbs to 10,000 feet for jumps. Students freefall 35 to 40 seconds with their instructors, who like to open the chute at 4,500 to 5,000 feet above the ground.
“It’s almost like you’re stationary in the air,” Young says of freefalling. “It’s a nice sensation.”
After the chute opens — only one chute is used in a tandem dive — it’s a 5- to 8-minute float from there back to the drop zone at the Rowan County Airport, where the company is based.
The weekend was busy for Laningham, Harris and Wilkerson, who are Piedmont Skydiving’s three instructors. On Saturday alone, they did 21 tandem jumps, followed by seven more on Sunday.
Laningham said Young was a perfect student.
“If I could get everybody else to do like him,” he says, “I’d be great.”
Young says he and Laningham tumbled at first, on leaving the Cessna, but were soon straightened out and taking wing. The only other negative, if you could call it that, was the harness itself.
“When you get stitched into those parachute rigs, it’s not the most comfortable thing in the world,” Young says.
The landing went well. Laningham told Young to lift his feet up, and the instructor handled it from there. They sort of eased into the ground, sliding a bit on their rear ends.
“It was a very smooth landing — you can control those things so well,” Young reports.
Military man
Young grew up in Salisbury, graduated from Boyden High School and was an engineering major at N.C. State.
In World War II, he was an engineering officer for a P-38 squadron in the Pacific Theater that was going to be taking aerial photographs of Japan, in preparation for an eventual invasion.
The squadron practiced a lot but never saw combat because of the way the war played out with Japan’s surrender after the dropping of the atomic bombs.
After completing his education at N.C. State, Young worked for a Roanoke, Va., company. When the Korean conflict emerged, Young, who had been in the ROTC at State, decided to go back into the service.
With the Air Force, he became heavily involved in electronic reconnaissance, a field that fit in with his engineering training at State.
He never saw combat in security service positions, and the closest he came to Korea during that conflict was some duty in Japan.
As a young man in Salisbury, Young had learned to fly at the Rowan County Airport, back when it was being run by Clay Swaim.
He remembers buying his first two-seat airplane for $750. Later, he bought a three-seat Piper and did most of his flying in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
After a 30-year career in the Air Force, in which he never parachuted, Young and his wife retired to Anchor Downs in 1976. By then, their two daughters were off to college.
Young’s wife died in the early 1990s, and he later lived with Louise Raver. The couple were fixtures at the YMCA, and they often were seen dancing eloquently at many fundraising events in Salisbury.
The couple also traveled extensively, including 11 different cruises.
“She was beautiful,” Young says. “… We had a wonderful time.”
Raver died last year before they could make their 12th cruise. She never was thrilled when Young mentioned his desire to skydive, so he kept putting it off.
The stars just seemed to align this year, and their constellation spelled out both “bucket list” and “birthday.”
One of Young’s daughters, Cindy Archbell, came in for his big skydive, taking photographs and sharing in the experience with Young’s nephew, George Lentz.
Now that he’s done the tandem dive and has that experience behind him, Young says he might do it again, trying to be more appreciative of all the things happening around him, including the great views.
Young — it’s all in the name.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.